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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 12:18 am

On to the next Illinois crisis

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
It’s been clear for decades that the way Illinois funds its public schools has been wrong-headed. But finding a solution has eluded everyone who has tried. Until now.

Gov. Jim Edgar thoroughly defeated a Democratic rival in 1994 who championed a “tax swap” idea. The plan Dawn Clark Netsch backed would’ve traded an income tax hike for local property tax reductions and an overall funding increase to local schools. For years, property taxes had been rising while the state’s share of overall education funding had plummeted. But Edgar focused on the income tax hike in Netsch’s plan and pummeled her at the polls.

Well into his second term, Edgar unveiled his own school funding plan, which turned out to be eerily similar to Netsch’s proposal. His proposal was backed by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who had spoken briefly during the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention in favor of school funding reform. The plan was killed by Senate President Pate Philip, a suburban Republican who pointed out that the voters had already thoroughly rejected Netsch’s proposal.

Philip also strongly opposed a last-minute provision to help Chicago Public Schools pay for its teacher pensions. The state picks up all the employer and legacy costs of teacher pensions for the suburbs and Downstate, but not Chicago. And that has been a bone of contention for years.

James Meeks, an African-American minister of a huge congregation on Chicago’s South Side, was the next to take up the mantle. Meeks was elected to the Illinois Senate as an independent in 2002 and he made education funding reform his top priority. Meeks threatened to run as an independent candidate for governor in 2006 if incumbent Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich didn’t come up with his own plan.

Blagojevich convinced Meeks to get out of the race by unveiling a proposal that vastly increased school funding by privatizing the lottery. But after Blagojevich was safely re-elected, he double-crossed Meeks and didn’t follow through.

Meeks spent the next few years attempting to pass a huge tax hike package, mainly to help public schools. But it stalled when Speaker Madigan wouldn’t put his House majority at risk.

Along the way, Meeks attempted to organize a boycott of underfunded Chicago Public Schools and brought busloads of kids to suburban Winnetka in a failed bid to enroll them in the top-ranked New Trier High School. He also championed the idea of using tax money to help kids enroll in private schools.

It turns out that a Winnetka resident at the time, Bruce Rauner, wound up being elected governor a few years later. Meeks backed Rauner in the 2014 campaign and Rauner, a school choice champion, appointed Meeks chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

At the time of the 2014 election, state Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from the tiny southern Illinois town of Bunker Hill, had already been working on the school funding problem. Manar had quit his job as Senate President John Cullerton’s chief of staff to run for the legislature in 2012, so he had far more skills and experience than the typical freshman. After he was inaugurated, Gov. Rauner hired an education funding reform point person, Beth Purvis, and put her in charge of a study commission that actually wanted to get something done this time.

The next two-and-a-half years were filled with excruciating political infighting that made even the most hardened insiders blanch. It looked like it would all go off the rails more times than I could count. And it really almost did when the governor used his amendatory veto powers in July on a bill passed by both the House and Senate in May.

Rauner constantly derided that bill as a “Chicago bailout.” But his amendatory veto introduced new concepts that hadn’t been discussed by his commission and, therefore, brought opponents out of the woodwork.

Faced with yet another revolt by some of the same legislative Republicans who overrode his vetoes of the state budget and income tax hike, Rauner was finally convinced to pare back his excessive demands.

Rauner did win a school choice component – a five-year income tax credit for donations to private and out-of-district public school tuition scholarship funds that Chairman Meeks backed. But he also ended up signing a bill that provided more money for Chicago Public Schools than the one he vetoed, including, finally, some significant state cash for Chicago teacher pensions, a proposal he vetoed almost two years ago.

Without Manar, Purvis and Meeks and those who preceded them, none of this would’ve happened. And now we can move on to the next Illinois crisis.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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